Monday, October 1, 2012

Five top books on evolution and human cooperation

Paul Seabright is the author of The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life. He is professor of economics at the Toulouse School of Economics and has been a fellow of All Souls College, University of Oxford, and Churchill College, University of Cambridge.

His latest book is The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Cooperation Have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present.

With The Browser's Toby Ash, Seabright discussed five top books on evolution and human cooperation, including:
A Cooperative Species
by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis

On to your next pick now, which one reviewer has described as “a compelling and novel account of how humans come to be moral and cooperative”. Please tell us more.

For a long time the puzzle of cooperation in modern societies was posed as: How can selfish individuals come to cooperate? This book – which again is clearly in the tradition of Darwin’s The Descent of Man – says that this question is mis-posed because the evidence is overwhelming that human beings are not entirely selfish. They are motivated by lots of other things like sympathy, altruism and mutual affection, and also by envy, revenge and resentment. Bowles and Gintis argue that that puzzle is rather how natural selection came to make us not entirely selfish. How did these complicated humans – who certainly have selfish motives but also motives of sympathy, affection, resentment and envy and so forth – come to make it through the process of natural selection? So the book is largely about this question, which they argue is the really difficult one to answer.

This is a more academically rigorous book. By saying that I’m not signalling that it’s an impossible read – on the contrary it’s a very good read – but some of the chapters are rather technical. I would encourage readers who are worried about technicalities not to mind that, as you don’t have to read every chapter in the book in order to come out of it inspired and informed.
Read about the other books Seabright tagged at The Browser.

Visit Paul Seabright's website.

The Page 99 Test: The War of the Sexes.

Writers Read: Paul Seabright.

--Marshal Zeringue